Hells Canyon

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Hells Canyon

Hells Canyon is a stretch of canyon on the Snake River between Idaho and Oregon. This canyon, deeper than the Grand Canyon and formed in ancient basalt flows, contains some of the United States' wildest rapids and has provided extensive recreational and scenic boating since the 1920s. The narrow canyon has also provided outstanding dam sites. Hells Canyon became the subject of nationwide controversy between 1967 and 1975, when environmentalists challenged hydroelectric developers over the last stretch of free-flowing water in the Snake River from the border of Wyoming to the Pacific.

Historically Hells Canyon, over 100 mi (161 km) long, filled with rapids, and averaging 6,500 ft (1,983 m) deep, presented a major obstacle to travelers and explorers crossing the mountains and deserts of southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. Nez Percé, Paiute, Cayuse, and other Native American groups of the region had long used the area as a mild wintering ground with good grazing land for their horses. European settlers came for the modest timber and with cattle and sheep to graze. As early as the 1920s travelers were arriving in this scenic area for recreational purposes, with the first river runners navigating the canyon's rapids in 1928. By the end of the Depression the Federal Power Commission was urging regional utility companies to tap the river's hydroelectric potential, and in 1958 the first dam was built in the canyon.

Falling from the mountains in southern Yellowstone National Park through Idaho, and into the Columbia River, the Snake River drops over 7,000 vertical ft (2,135 m) in 1,000 mi (1,609 km) of river. This drop and the narrow gorges the river has carved presented excellent dam opportunities, and by the end of the 1960s there were 18 major dams along the river's course. By that time the river was also attracting great numbers of whitewater rafters and kayakers, as well as hikers and campers in the adjacent national forests. When a proposal was developed to dam the last free-running section of the canyon, protesters brought a suit to the United States Supreme Court. In 1967, Justice William O. Douglas led the majority in a decision directing the utilities to consider alternatives to the proposed dam.

Hells Canyon became a national environmental issue. Several members of Congress flew to Oregon to raft the river. The Sierra Club and other groups lobbied vigorously. Finally, in 1975 President Gerald Ford signed a bill declaring the remaining stretch of the canyon a National Scenic Waterway, creating a 650,000-acre (260,000-ha) Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, and adding 193,000 acres (77,200 ha) of the area to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

See also Wild and Scenic Rivers Act; Wild river

[Mary Ann Cunningham Ph.D. ]



Collins, R. O., and R. Nash. The Big Drops. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1978.


Hells Canyon Recreation Area. "Hells Canyon." Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988.